You can't measure patriotism with stars and stripes

January 10, 2002|By Mark Franek

PHILADELPHIA - The appearance of flags in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11 was a sincere expression of America's best qualities.

The Stars and Stripes symbolized our resolve to remove the rubble and galvanized our vigilance for peace and order and our readiness for war.

Already we have become more appreciative and committed to what we are trying to protect.

Not even Osama bin Laden at his most "pessimistic" could have foreseen this unintended side effect.

But (am I the first person to say it?) enough already with the flags.

My neighbor has placed no fewer than three flags on top of his roof, which were visibly stunning the first week of their unveiling but are becoming a bit of an eyesore from my window this January morning. (This is the same neighbor who admitted to me July 4, after a few beers, that he annually cheats on his taxes by claiming "Lawn" as a dependent - "I feed it, therefore without me it would die.")

Another neighbor has removed his rebel battle flag from the back window of his truck and replaced it with an American flag (which is a vast improvement by most standards). But in one of the white stripes, in capital letters, he has penned: "ALL TOWELHEADS MUST DIE!"

Even NBC's peacock doesn't have the grace to shed her star-studded plumage and return to a simple transparent outline like her competitors, now that all of the networks have found a way to conspicuously advertise themselves 24-7.

You might say that I'm over-reacting, that there's nothing wrong with a little bit of old-fashioned (even newfangled) patriotism, that none of these flag-flying, pimped-up-angels really affects me. On the contrary!

My mother gave me a turtleneck with an American flag stitched into the neck for Christmas. When I told her, "Thanks, but may I have the receipt?" the implication that I would take it back to the store nearly caused a family crisis. My mother called me unpatriotic, my father called me insensitive and my brother just laughed, enjoying the scene of me catching hell for a change.

There was nothing left to do but clean up the discarded wrapping paper and boxes (did you notice the American flag wrapping paper and the red, white, and blue boxes?) and walk it silently to the big trashcan behind the house. It seemed as if I was the only one resisting the proliferation of flags.

I always thought that patriotism - a sincere devotion to one's country - is not measured in stars and bars. Like most things that have real and lasting value - integrity, compassion, honesty - patriotism cannot be measured in symbolic displays of affection, which are redundant after a while. Or worse, insincere.

Patriotism ought to be measured by what you do, what you say and how you act over lots of time.

So, after the flags are folded and put away, after the pins and pendants get buried in their jewelry boxes or thrown away, after the angels sprout new wings, there will come a time of relative peace and prosperity. People will take off their NYPD hats and put away their FDNY shirts.

Eventually, the police will make a mistake and beat/shoot/kill an innocent man. The president will lie about something, and the country will slip once again into some kind of dispute. People will start complaining.

At that moment, I will plant Old Glory at the very edge of my property.

And the guy with the rebel flag in the back of his truck will drive by and call me an idiot. Maybe he'll even give me the finger.

Ah, America. It's a free country!

Mark Franek is dean of students at the William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia, where he also teaches English and coaches soccer.

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